IT WAS the moment that changed British TV comedy forever: 10pm, February 24th 1956, when Associated-Rediffusion, in all their independent majesty, let SPIKE MILLIGAN on the telly. THE IDIOT WEEKLY, PRICE 2D was the programme, with Spike and PETER SELLERS lording it as the editors of the eponymous screwball Edwardian periodical, the flimsiest of excuses for the pair and assorted co-stars to caper about in the most ramshackle fashion imaginable under the extremely loose direction of RICHARD LESTER.
It obviously struck a chord, or at least terrified few enough people, as the even more unhinged A SHOW CALLED FRED over where the Weekly left off in May. This time even the nebulous framing narrative was jettisoned, and the madness began as soon as the cameras went live. The programme typically began with Spike, dressed in rags, mooching around the Associated-Rediffusion studio corridors, accompanied by the Kenny Everett Video Show-style sparse but genuine crew laughter that punctuated the whole programme. This was followed by a bit of business with Sellers in trunks attempting to bash a Rank-style gong, and credits for “the well-known Thespian actors” KENNETH CONNOR, VALENTINE DYALL (usually clad in bow tie, dinner jacket and no shirt, or better yet long-johns and top hat) and GRAHAM STARK. Other contributors included JOHN ANTROBUS (dragged on screen just to point out he wrote the sketch currently under way), bearded sousaphone playing duo and all-round pre-Bonzos musical anarchists THE ALBERTS (always introduced as Peter and Hugh Jampton), PATTI LEWIS and the inevitable MAX GELDRAY. The suspiciously similar SON OF FRED carried on the tradition in September.
The whole thing, done entirely live with a few film inserts, was heroically shoddy, even by the primitive standards of the day. Backdrops wobbled and frayed at the edges, costumes were either half-complete or non-existent, and in the frequent pull-outs to take in backstage crew and lovely old EMI cameras, the floor was visibly covered in crap. Spike himself appeared surprisingly infrequently, mainly accompanying Sellers reading out viewers’ letters in front of a back projection of speeding cars and burning buildings, or sticking his head through random openings and making stupid noises. Which was, of course, all to the good.
The shows ended with an extended film parody, such as the exquisite COLDITZ spoof Escaper’s Club, with some brilliantly hammy acting (“Ssh! Listen!”) or a Count of Monte Cristo pastiche written by John Antrobus (“That’s me! Me!”) which featured an infiltration by BBC television cameras, pre-empted the Pythons’ coconut-halves-for-horses gag by nearly twenty years and ended up with the destruction of the already threadbare set, a rousing chorus of Riding Along On the Crest of a Wave, and Valentine Dyall doing the dishes in the studio’s self-service canteen. Ad hoc excellence, in short, and it’s nothing short of mind-blowing to think this stuff is over half a century old, as distant from us now as those Edwardian periodicals were from then.